Renewed push to deregulate GMOs in New Zealand

Biotech lobbyists have been playing the long game on GMO deregulation, and now a 2021 report from the Productivity Commission recommending a review of our strict GMO laws is being used to advance the cause, with little genuine scrutiny by media.

16 April 1News segment on GMO deregulation.

A segment declaring Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) are once again a ‘hot topic’ aired on 1News, on 16 April, after the Government responded to calls for a review of New Zealand’s moratorium on genetic modification by the Productivity Commission with some immediate recommendations.

However, whether it is a ‘hot topic’ with anyone but media and their advertisers is debatable.

In its 2021 Reaching for the Frontier report, the commission, which is headed by Berl economist Ganesh Nana, states:

“Modern genetic modification (GM) technologies such as gene-editing offer potential new opportunities for boosting productivity, improving health outcomes, reducing biosecurity risks, and responding to climate-change risks and other environmental problems effectively and efficiently. The regulatory framework for GM tools was last reviewed in 2001 and does not reflect technological advances since that time. The Government should review the GM regulatory framework, to ensure it is fit for purpose and supports domestic innovation. This review should include wide engagement with industry, Māori and the general public. It should assess consumer attitudes, and the potential impacts on New Zealand firms who wish to retain GM-free status, and on New Zealand’s reputation and brand more generally.”

On 8 April, the Government said it considered it timely to start “informed conversation around New Zealand’s use of GM technologies”, although using a “proceed with caution” approach.

What followed was a volley of news reports heavily slanted towards deregulation, and notable either for lacking a consumer point of view, or for failing to take comment from the country’s long-standing activist organisation GE Free NZ, which has taken fewer and fewer calls from journalists with each passing year – almost in direct relationship to the rise of the Science Media Centre’s (SMC) influence on science reporting in New Zealand.

The SMC is considered by some to function more as a front group for corporate science than a resource for journalists, and its funding remains obscure. SMC wields considerable influence on science reporting.

Part of the biotech lobby’s current pitch is that the introduction of GMOs and gene editing is inevitable, even though there is no substantive debate about the science or the ethics in the public domain.

One wonders how much lobbying has made it a news priority, frankly.

Lessons from Britain

The timing is unsurprising, coming just a month after the UK removed the final barriers to GMO field trials, something it has been working on diligently since the UK left the European Union. The UKs Environmental Protection Act 1990 was amended, creating a regulatory exemption for field trials of GMOs that could have been created through traditional breeding or “occurred naturally”.

British anti-GMO lobby group Beyond GM said the amendment was voted through without much opposition, and without accompanying scientific guidance on how to determine if a GMO is ‘natural’. 

“We are told this guidance will come at the end of April, however this will be non-statutory and, therefore, non-binding.”

Under the new rules, field trials can be conducted in Britain with minimal paperwork and without a license. Trial crops will not be required to be collected and destroyed, the public will not be required to be given notice of when, where or the extent of field trials and the exempted class plants is not limited to agricultural crops but is extended to trees, flowers, shrubs and grasses. Startlingly, there will be no requirement for separation from organic and non-GMO fields.

It’s hard not to see this laxness as an attack on nature, natural foods and the organic industry. There are widespread conflicts of interest among members of the ‘independent’ government advisory body the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE), who also have connections to the biotech industry, which stands to gain from weaker regulation of agricultural GMOs.

Given this major coup for the biotech lobby after decades of persistent work, it’s fairly inevitable that they would seek to capitalise on it to push for deregulation elsewhere.

Should New Zealand embrace GM Crops?

GE Free NZ president Claire Bleakley says the Productivity Commission report uses “the same mantra” that was used 25 years ago to argue for deregulation of the failed early GE technology of transgenics.

“New Zealand cannot afford industry to avoid necessary precaution and regulation. The Productivity Commission report fails to value Nature itself, the existing opportunities for authentic climate action and the longer-term importance of bio-integrity in natural systems. There is also value in Brand New Zealand being recognised by international consumers for safe, natural food, high standards of animal welfare and meeting the global demand for non-GMO Food.”

Bleakley says the push to normalise foods containing genetically modified ingredients is also worrying. Greenwashing is being used to sell The Impossible Burger, a soy-based fake meat product containing genetically modified soy leghemoglobin, which makes it ‘bleed’ like real meat, and which can now be found on supermarket shelves and on Hell’s Pizza.

There had been no long-term trials of synthetic plant based meat alternatives on people or evidence of nutritional benefits, she says.

“Everything in the product is divorced from nature. The GMO soy isolate and potato starch, which could be genetically engineered, are derived from plants heavily sprayed with pesticides before being highly refined (which evades requirements for products to be labelled as GMO).”

Industrially grown GMO soy and potato threaten the environment due to the heavy pesticide use and deforestation to grow crops, while more energy is required to process them in to “highly degraded” products, she says.

The 1News report makes the claim that the public is no longer as engaged with the GMO issue, but lobbyists have been playing the long game. For decades they have been chipping away at changing young people’s attitudes around genetic modification, been caught paying off academics to promote GMOs as safe, tracked journalists producing unfavourable reports, and promoted fake foods as environmental saviours. Simultaneously, there has been a well-funded campaign to demonise livestock production.

Young people today commonly believe a vegan diet of highly processed ‘plant-based’ foods, grown with heavy use of agricultural chemicals, is better for the environment than organic and regeneratively produced meat and that gene editing is not a risk for health or the environment.

Alongside this, smear campaigns directed towards anyone publicly questioning the necessity for and safety of GMOs and gene editing are standard procedure.

How many young people know about the scandalous Séralini Affair, in which a highly credentialed geneticist was ruthlessly attacked and de-famed after showing that genetically engineered Roundup ready maize and and low doses of glyphosate caused cancer in rats? It is long forgotten despite its prescient lessons for the covid era.

Rats from the 2012 Séralini study of Roundup ready maize and glyphosate, which developed tumors when studied for longer than three months.

I interviewed Professor Gilles Eric Séralini in 2013, and he told me: “They are modifying the world at an industrial speed, making new forms of life saying, ‘Oh they are very new and interesting, but we don’t want to test them for longer than three months’.

“So, this is the first proof that it is a crazy world. And you have a few scientists in the European Commission saying, ‘They will be a good product and good for the economy but we’re not going to show anyone the blood analysis of this rat because it’s confidential business information’.”

Nearly 10 years later the industry has made steady progress towards both deregulation and public acceptance of genetic engineering. European Union plans to cut the use of pesticides in half by 2030 are under attack from the well-resourced pesticide industry lobby group CropLife Europe. Despite lobbying tactics being now well documented, consumers remains highly susceptible to deep pocketed public relations campaigns in support of genetic modification and gene editing.

““They are modifying the world at an industrial speed, making new forms of life,” says Gilles Eric Séralini.

The media has long been glaringly biased on this issue. Even the 1News report came over more like an argument for deregulation than an exploration of the risks and benefits. After two years of stifling scientific debate around covid-19, no-one should be surprised to learn this approach is a well-worn playbook, with lessons from Séralini and other scientists who have spoken up about the dangers of GMOs and agricultural chemicals and been aggressively attacked and censored.

So stay alert for a steady stream of news stories, opinion pieces, even television specials, in the coming months arguing we need to let scientists be as reckless as they want for the good of the country. In the past it has usually been argued on the basis of a perceived economic benefit and being ‘left behind’, despite a paucity of evidence that these technologies can deliver on their claims, while the dangers of messing with mother nature are generally dismissed as non-serious.

Today, talking points are heavily focused on the environment: that we ‘need’ gene editing to combat climate change and even save New Zealand’s native biodiversity from extinction – anything they think the public might swallow.

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